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Context of 'October 10, 2002-October 20, 2002: Canadian Citizen Maher Arar Tortured in Syria'

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The CIA proposes a policy of abducting Islamic Jihad militants and sending them to Egypt which will soon be approved by President Bill Clinton (see June 21, 1995). The Clinton administration began a policy of allowing abductions, known as “renditions,” in 1993 (see 1993). At first, renditions were rarely used because few countries wanted the suspects. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is one of the architects of a 1995 agreement with Egypt to send rendered militants there. He will later recall: “It was begun in desperation.… We were turning into voyeurs. We knew where these people were, but we couldn’t capture them because we had nowhere to take them,” due to legal and diplomatic complications. The CIA realized that “we had to come up with a third party.” Egypt was the obvious choice because the Islamic Jihad is the prime political enemy of the Egyptian government, and many Islamic Jihad militants also work for al-Qaeda, an enemy of the US.
Turning a Blind Eye - However, the Egyptian secret police force, the Mukhabarat, is notorious for its torture of prisoners. As part of the program, the US helps track, capture, and transport suspects to Egypt (see Before Summer 1995) and then turns a blind eye while the Egyptians torture them. Scheuer claims the US could give the Egyptian interrogators questions they wanted put to the detainees in the morning and get answers by the evening. Because torture is illegal in the US, US officials are never present when the torture is done. Further, the CIA only abducts suspects who have already been convicted in absentia. Talaat Fouad Qassem is the first known person the CIA renders to Egypt (see September 13, 1995). But the number of renditions greatly increases in 1998, when the CIA gets a list of Islamic Jihad operatives around the world (see Late August 1998). These renditions result in a big trial in Egypt in 1999 that effectively destroys Islamic Jihad as a major force in that country (see 1999). (Mayer 2/8/2005)
CIA, NSC, Justice Department Lawyers Consulted - Scheuer will say that lawyers inside and outside the CIA are intensively consulted about the program: “There is a large legal department within the Central Intelligence Agency, and there is a section of the Department of Justice that is involved in legal interpretations for intelligence work, and there is a team of lawyers at the National Security Council, and on all of these things those lawyers are involved in one way or another and have signed off on the procedure. The idea that somehow this is a rogue operation that someone has dreamed up is just absurd.” (Grey 2007, pp. 140-141)
Leadership of Program - The rendition program does not focus solely on al-Qaeda-linked extremists, and other suspected terrorists are also abducted. Scheuer will later tell Congress, “I authored it and then ran and managed it against al-Qaeda leaders and other Sunni Islamists from August 1995, until June 1999.” (US Congress 4/17/2007 pdf file) A dedicated Renditions Branch will be established at CIA headquarters in 1997 (see 1997), but the relationship between Scheuer and its manager is not known—it is unclear whether this manager is a subordinate, superior, or equal of Scheuer, or whether Scheuer takes on this responsibility as well. After Scheuer is fired as unit chief in May 1999 (see June 1999), his role in the rendition program will presumably be passed on to his successor, Richard Blee, who will go on to be involved in rendition after 9/11 (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). In a piece apparently about Blee, journalist Ken Silverstein will say that he “oversaw… the [Counterterrorist Center] branch that directed renditions.” (Silverstein 1/28/2007)

A Renditions Branch is established at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Its job is to find militant leaders and then assist their abduction. The US government has been rendering suspects for four years (see 1993), and the CIA has had a dedicated program for this since the summer of 1995 (see Summer 1995). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 276) Although some specific rendition operations are known (see Summer 1998, July 1998-February 2000, and Late August 1998), the total before 9/11 is not. Estimates vary, but generally fall into a similar range:
bullet Citing a public statement by CIA Director George Tenet, 9/11 commission deputy executive director Chris Kojm will say “70 terrorists were rendered and brought to justice before 9/11;”
bullet Shortly after this, Tenet himself will confirm there were “over 70” renditions; (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
bullet Tenet will also say “many dozen” suspects were rendered before 9/11; (Central Intelligence Agency 3/24/2004)
bullet The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will say that the Branch is involved in “several dozen” renditions before 9/11; (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 728 pdf file)
bullet Michael Scheuer, a CIA manager responsible for operations against Osama bin Laden, will say that between 1995 and May 1999 “[t]he operations that I was in charge of concerned approximately 40 people…” (Scheuer 7/1/2006)

Maher Arar.Maher Arar. [Source: Chris Wattie / Reuters]On his way home to Montreal, Maher Arar, a 34-year old IT specialist, makes a stopover at JFK International Airport in New York. He is returning alone from a family holiday with his wife and daughter in Tunisia. At the airport, Arar, who was born in Syria and has dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship, is arrested by officers wearing badges from the FBI and the New York Police Department. Arar happens to be on a terrorist watch list. A US official later says Arar has the names of “a large number of known al-Qaeda operatives, affiliates or associates” on him. (Priest 11/19/2003) Canadian Solicitor General Wayne Easter later admits that Canada contributed information that led to Arar’s arrest. (Priest 11/20/2003) In an interrogation room Arar asks for an attorney, but, as he later publishes on his website, is told he has no right to a lawyer because he is not an American citizen. Subsequent requests for a lawyer are ignored and the interrogation continues until midnight. His interrogators are particularly interested in another Canadian by the name of Abdullah Almalki. Arar says he has worked together with his brother, Nazih Almalki, but knows Abdullah only casually. Then, with his hands and feet in shackles, he is taken to a nearby building and put in a cell around 1 a.m. “I could not sleep,” Arar later writes. “I was very, very scared and disoriented.” (Amnesty International 8/19/2003; Arar 11/6/2003; CBS News 1/22/2004; Priest and Stephens 5/11/2004; CBC News 11/26/2004; Maher Arar 1/15/2005)

At 3 o’clock in the morning, Maher Arar is woken up in his cell in New York and taken to another room where he is stripped, searched, shackled, and chained. Two officials read him a decision by the director of the INS, saying that he will be deported to Syria and, as Arar recalls it, “that INS was not the body that deals with Geneva Convention regarding torture.” There is no such convention, but this is probably a reference to the Convention Against Torture (CAT—see October 21, 1994). However, Article 3 of the CAT states: “No State Party shall expel… a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” In addition, the US immigration law cited to justify Arar’s deportation prohibits sending individuals to a country where “it is more likely than not that they will be tortured.” A Justice Department spokesman nevertheless maintains that “the removal of Mr. Arar was accomplished after interagency consultation and in full compliance with the law and with all relevant international treaties and conventions.” (Priest 11/19/2003) On that early morning of October 8, Arar is put on a small jet. After a landing in Washington, a “special removal unit,” a term Arar overheard, boards the plane and is at this point in custody of the CIA. (Brown 11/12/2003; Priest and Stephens 5/11/2004) “They said Syria was refusing to take me directly,” Arar will later recall, “and I would have to fly to Jordan.” Torture is again his prime thought. “At that time I was thinking of what would happen once I arrived in Syria and how am I to avoid torture.” Via Portland, Maine, and Rome, the jet lands in Amman, Jordan, where six or seven Jordanians are waiting for him. Without a word being spoken Arar is handed over. Blindfolded and chained, he is put in a van, and “right away,… they started beating me,” Arar recalls. Half an hour later inside a building, he is subjected to more questioning. (CBC News 11/26/2004)

The day following Maher Arar’s handover by the CIA to Jordanian authorities (see October 8, 2002), the overland journey to Syria resumes in various cars and again Arar is beaten. In the evening, Arar arrives at the so-called “Palestinian branch” of Syrian military intelligence. Interrogation begins. “I was very, very scared,” Arar will later recall. There is a metal chair in the corner, and each time Arar does not answer quickly enough, a Syrian colonel points at the chair and asks, “Do you want me to use this?” Arar later learns it is used for torture. Four hours later, he is taken to a cell in the basement. “It was like a grave,” Arar says. “It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high.… There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this. There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes, and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light. I spent ten months and ten days inside that grave.” (CBC News 11/26/2004)

A day after his arrival at the “Palestinian Branch” prison in Syria (see October 9, 2002), Maher Arar’s captors begin torturing him. He will later claim, “The beating started… and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst. I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms.” Only on this day, two days after his removal, is Canada officially informed of Arar’s deportation from the US. (CBC News 11/26/2004) A few days later, Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, relays her concerns about his fate. “I don’t know even if he’s dead, alive, tortured, punished, anything,” she says. (CBC News 10/16/2002) The next two days, his torturers use a two-inch thick black electrical cable to beat him all over his body, but mostly on his hands and wrists. They also threaten him with “the chair,” electric shocks and, while constrained inside a tire, with beatings on the sole of his feet. Another tactic is to scare him by putting him in a waiting room where he is forced to listen to the screams of other prisoners being tortured. On the third day, the interrogation round lasts about 18 hours. “They kept beating me so I had to falsely confess and told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture. They wanted me to say I went to a training camp. I was so scared I urinated on myself twice. The beating was less severe each of the following days. At the end of each day, they would always say, ‘Tomorrow will be harder for you.’ So each night, I could not sleep—I did not sleep for the first four days, and slept no more than two hours a day for about two months.” Interrogations and torture end around October 20, three days before Arar receives a visit from the Canadian consulate. With the colonel and three other Syrian officials present, Arar does not dare talk about his experiences. After the visit, he is required to sign a document, the contents of which are unknown to him, and on another document he is forced to write that he has been to Afghanistan. All in all, Arar receives seven consular visits and one from members of the Canadian parliament. He is never in the position, however, to tell his visitors about the torture and his grave-like cell. For six months he does not see any sunlight, except for during the interrogations and visits. He loses 40 pounds. “I had moments I wanted to kill myself. I was like a dead person.” (Brown 11/12/2003)

In the Syrian “Palestine Branch” prison, Maher Arar is instructed by an interrogator to write a statement admitting that he went to a training camp in Afghanistan and sign it. He does so only after being kicked. After more than 10 months in solitary confinement (see October 9, 2002), Arar is let out of his grave-like cell. He is then transferred, first to the “Investigation Branch,” and then to Sednaya prison. “I was very lucky,” he says, “that I was not tortured when I arrived there. All the other prisoners were tortured when they arrived.” (CBC News 11/26/2004)

Former CIA manager Michael Scheuer, who ran the agency’s “rendition” program that sent suspected terrorists to foreign nations to be interrogated for information in the late 1990s (see Summer 1995 and 1997), says during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the assurances of Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria that a suspect will not be tortured are not “worth a bucket of warm spit.” Scheuer tells the assembled lawmakers that he knows of at least three mistakes that the CIA has made in its overseas rendition program, including the capture and subsequent torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002 and October 10, 2002-October 20, 2002). (Savage 2007, pp. 149-150; US Congress 4/17/2007 pdf file)


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